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Similar to this site's question on impostor syndrome, what strategies would people recommend for dealing with self-doubt and discouragement on the academic job market?

It's not that I think I'm an imposter; frankly, all of my academic peers are in the same boat. I also haven't been searching very long: I thought I had secured a position, but it fell through at the last-minute. Now all the navel-gazing of tweaking my CVs, polishing up my research statements and soliciting additional reference letters - to sometimes not even getting the courtesy of an explicit rejection - is starting to wear on me. I miss doing science instead of (what feels like) limp-wristed self-aggrandisement.

I've seen on this site that people have spent years searching: do you have any advice on keeping a positive attitude?

Update edit: Got a postdoc! Ended up combining aspects of all three answers; I went for a job with more teaching than I originally wanted, but where I had an edge topic-wise. Also got another paper through revisions during the process. From discussions with some more senior people in my field, the factors Cheery mentioned were presumably playing more of a role than I initially expected.

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  • Since I can only accept one answer, I've accepted the top one. All three were helpful; thank you for your perspectives and advice! Commented Jan 27 at 12:51

3 Answers 3

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I finished my PhD at a time when the job market was very (very) unfavorable for mathematicians. It took years to recover. I had to keep lowering my expectations for a research job and eventually wound up in a very small teaching college. We did great work there with first generation college students from rural areas with modest qualifications, so it was, in itself rewarding. We boosted some people who needed boosting. (Note that this is a US focus.)

But just putting yourself out there with a CV, etc. isn't necessarily going to get you anywhere as everyone else is doing the same thing. Seek out a place that looks interesting and focus on it. More than one place, most likely.

The mistake I made was in not keeping abreast of the changes in the market and not keeping in contact with my advisor and other faculty members. I could have moved up sooner than I did and higher, but I was fairly satisfied, until I wasn't.

My advice is to find a position for which you are qualified (over qualified, perhaps) and will be satisfied in the short term even if it isn't your ideal, but keep an eye on the market and keep in contact with your circle of supporters. The market is bad now, as you have seen, but it can change. Use what resources you have to expand your circle, perhaps by attending meetings and conferences. You can also, if you are at a modest place, work to increase its impact, which I also had the chance to do. If you are able to increase the quality of the place you are at, and it is small-ish, it will likely reflect well on yourself.

For the purely emotional aspects, a professional can help. It would be devastating to fall into actual depression over this. It isn't you, necessarily, that is the source of the problem. Times are rough.

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    +1 for combining part of your personal story with good advice for the OP. Commented Jan 25 at 14:49
  • Thank you! In particular, the advice to seek out a specific place I'm lightly overqualified for sounds like a good strategy. Commented Jan 25 at 17:26
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Just to set a baseline, start by making sure that your self-evaluation is within range, ie check that you are not suffering from impostor syndrome, but also that you are not being delusional about your chances. Check that the people getting jobs in your field are more or less at your level, which suggests that the reason they are getting job offers is because of some small edge, i.e. an extra grant, an extra top-tier publication, a sexy topic (e.g. they work with Dolphins and you work with maggots), exceptional presentation skills, etc. It's normal to apply for a job for which you have a good chance, and lose to a better candidate. It's another thing to be applying to jobs for which you have no realistic chance.

So assuming that you are going after jobs within your range:

  1. It's not enough to be good: you also have to be lucky. It's very possible that you are the perfect candidate to last year's job, or a job that will come up 5 years from now. You also compete against a different pool of candidates with every application. I have been on many faculty search committees, and sometimes it seems like it's impossible to decide among the many great candidates, other years we wonder why the applicant pool is so poor and end up canceling the search. So have some solace in the knowledge that luck has a lot to do with the process. And keep applying. Your number might be about to come up and you want to be there.
  2. The academic job market behaves like a tournament: the best candidate gets 100% of the job, the #2 candidate gets the same as #299: nothing. It would be a lot easier to deal with if you knew your ranking, e.g. you were next in the short list, but most times you have no information. This is not your fault. It's just the reality of the academic job market.
  3. Realize that a good portion of academic jobs are not really open. Many universities require all open positions to be advertised, even if the department already has a candidate they want to hire. The search committee still has to post the job, field candidates, interview 10 of them, bring to campus 5 of them, and just waste everybody's time before they hire the person they had in mind at the start. As the candidate, you have to see this as the cost of doing business. Let the other candidates be discouraged by this. The next job you apply for might be a real one.
  4. Have a Plan B. It's one thing to tell yourself "research is the only thing I can/want to do, and if I don't get this job, it means I wasted 6/10/15 years of my life." It's another to be in a position in which not getting the academic job means you will be destined to making lots of money in industry, be able to raise a family, not be concerned about tenure, etc. There's a bit of selection bias going on when you compare your success against other academics. Speak with people who left academia. The ones I know seem pretty darn happy with the result. Knowing that you have options will also make you a better candidate, as it will take off the weight of desperation, allow you to be more relaxed and natural during presentations, and in the case you get an offer, put you in a better state of mind when negotiating your salary and benefits.
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    +1 especially point 4
    – Dawn
    Commented Jan 24 at 20:38
  • Thank you! The points were all helpful to me: this is my first real experience on the job market, so having more insight into how it works behind the scenes is very useful. I'll try to get another opinion about the range of my applications as well. Commented Jan 25 at 17:42
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    "There's a bit of selection bias going on when you compare your success against other academics." A bit? Nominated for the understatement of the week award. ;-) Commented Jan 26 at 0:05
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Get a routine (don't navel-gaze 24/7) and keep exercising your "science muscles"

Now all the navel-gazing of tweaking my CVs, polishing up my research statements and soliciting additional reference letters - to sometimes not even getting the courtesy of an explicit rejection - is starting to wear on me.

I miss doing science instead of (what feels like) limp-wristed self-aggrandisement.

I've seen on this site that people have spent years searching: do you have any advice on keeping a positive attitude?

Absolutely!

  1. Limit all the "self-aggrandising navel-gazing" activities to a specific block of time each day. Think of it a little bit like a day job - like going to work and waiting tables during the day to pay the bills while going to night school for a future career1. By restricting these thoughts to only certain hours a day and then NOT thinking them the rest of the time (rather than worrying 24/7) you can reduce the rate that they wear on you2.
  2. Do science! While you may not have a cyclotron or electron microscope handy, you can read papers, you can calculate, you can learn, you can think. Keep your "science muscles" active by exercising. Find an interesting topic and dig in! Improve your python programming skills, get better at numerical simulations, buy a Raspberry Pi, take some data and analyze it. Check the topics that interest you in Phys.org and read as many papers there (or in arXiv or IFLScience or Ars Technica or Gizmodo or Quanta) as you can3. And for those that really pique your interest or challenge you, go deeper. Remind yourself daily that you ARE a scientist.

1Waiting tables can certainly be a career, just not so much of an academic one.

2This helps you remember that you are working as an employment agency with one client, rather than asking for your self. By abstracting your client as someone else, it will help you write about them objectively, or even when necessary, slightly embellishing or smoothing some rush edges. Acting as your own "agent" your goal is simply doing whatever it takes to get that person a job. Then when your block of time is done each day you can kick-back, relax (at least slightly) and read or do some science-tainment and continue to build your skills.

3You can also start asking and/o answering Stack Exchange questions in various fields of science that interest you. There was an unemployed period of my life where I even viewed waking up, making coffee and signing on to SE in the morning as "going to work". I could broaden my science horizons, read papers, research and calculate things, and extremely importantly interact with lots of smart, informed people every day! In a way, SE "saved my life". :-)

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    Thank you! I hadn't thought of the employment agency perspective before; it sounds useful. While I don't formally have access to university facilities anymore, my former supervisor is fine with me still dropping in. Commented Jan 26 at 14:25
  • @coffee_into_plots oh that's really good to hear :-)
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 26 at 20:48

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